Posts Tagged ‘Lyrics on Several Occasions’

Clichés Don’t Make the World Go Round, but They Can Make Songs Better

September 4, 2017

Ira Gershwin

The Word Mavens Are Wrong

Style guides and writing teachers say we should avoid clichés like the plague. They’re bad, hackneyed, and trite. They say clichés are crutches, used by writers who are too lazy and stupid to think up new ways to say things.

But the experts wrong. Clichés have all sorts of wonderful uses.

Assisting Thought by Evoking a Visual Image

Many clichés are metaphors. According to George Orwell, an effective metaphor “assists thought by evoking a visual image.”

The anti-cliché crowd argues that no matter how strong or evocative a clichéd metaphor might be, its power dwindles with repeated use. But that ain’t necessarily so.

If you say, “Mary is burning the candle at both ends,”  a vivid picture comes to my mind which highlights the possible pitfalls of Mary’s behavior. This is an example of an outstanding metaphor that doesn’t diminish in fortitude no matter how many times you hear it.

The phrase “you’re just putting a band-aid on that problem” is another clichéd metaphor which remains evocative and effective despite repeated use.

These two clichéd metaphors are still effective because, even if we no longer light our houses with candles, candles and bandages are still part of our shared consciousness.

Metaphors—Dead, Alive, and Otherwise

But metaphorical clichés will lose vigor as words go out of fashion.  For example, the expression “hoisted by his own petard” packed a much greater rhetorical punch in an age when people commonly referred to bombs as petards.

Sometimes linguists employ the term “dead metaphor” to describe phrases like “hoisted by his own petard.” They reason that metaphors only remain “alive” as long as we can picture them in our mind’s eye.

But what if I tell you that Larry, who’s a very casual sports fan, just jumped on the Dodgers’ bandwagon? Even if you don’t know that there was a time when politicians actually hired wagons full of musicians to attract voters, it’s still easy to see what this expression means. So, is the bandwagon metaphor, alive, dead or somewhere in between?

Not All Clichés Are Created Equal

Not all clichés are created equal. And the better ones deserve respect.

Of course, many clichéd metaphors are duds. And a bad cliché is about as effective as a screen door on a submarine.

I tell students that the best way to judge the potency of a metaphor is to visualize it. For example, try to visualize yourself “throwing some shade on someone.”

The cliché “throwing shade on someone” means to deprecate a person. It’s a lousy metaphor and it sets my blood to boiling every time I hear it.

On the other hand, when Victor says, “Yo, man. I’d loved to hang out with you guys all day, but I gotta bounce,” he’s employing a marvelously robust metaphor. It tells me that Victor is so active he’s downright kinetic.

Ira Gershwin Hearts Clichés

As Ira Gershwin explains in his book Lyrics on Several Occasions, “The literary cliché is an integral part of lyric-writing.”

Sometimes lyricists cleverly rework a familiar cliché into a song. Like when Smokey Robinson says “I’m a choosy beggar, and you’re my choice.” Or when the Temptations sing “Papa was a rolling stone/Wherever he laid his hat was his home.” Or when Paul McCartney asks: “Would you walk away from a fool and his money?” Or when the Who’s Rodger Daltry laments, “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.” Or when Ian Hunter complains that love has left him feeling “Once Bitten, Twice shy.”

Gershwin notes that clichés are an essential part of the songwriter’s toolkit because:

The phrase that is trite and worn-out when appearing in print usually becomes, when heard fitted to the appropriate musical turn, revitalized, and seems somehow to revert to its original provocativeness.

Putting Clichés to Good Use

Here are some examples of songwriters putting clichés to good use:

Irving BerlinI’m Putting all my Eggs in One Basket

Phil CollinsAgainst All Odd

Gene AutryBack in the Saddle

Los Hermanos GershwinBidin’ my Time

Arthur HamiltonCry Me a River

Waldo HolmesDon’t Rock the Boat

Cole PorterI Get a Kick Out of You

Sammy CahnHigh Hopes

Norman Whitfield and Barrett StrongHeard it Through the Grapevine

Neil DiamondLove On the Rocks— (Nice pun, Neil)

Robbie RobertsonThe Weight (Take a Load off, Annie)

Stevie WonderSigned, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours

Al Hoffman and Dick ManningIt Takes Two to Tango

Larry Blackmon and Tomi JenkinsWord Up

Aaron Schroeder and Wally GoldIt’s Now or Never (Music by Eduardo di Capua)

by Richard W. Bray

 

An Interview on Writing Lyrics and Verse with Richard W. Bray Conducted by Richard W. Bray

February 7, 2016

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Question: When you write in the first person, are you writing about yourself?

Answer: Not necessarily. The decision to use first or third person is often made for phonetic and/or syntactical reasons. For example, I chose first person for “It’s Better to Burst than Ripple Away” largely because it sounds better in first person. For example,

compare this

I’m a rough and tumble cowboy
In a civilized time
My boots are gonna ramble
Till the end of the line

with this

He’s a rough and tumble cowboy
In a civilized time
His boots are gonna ramble
Till the end of the line

The first person just sounds better. And going the from the bilabial m in my to the bilabial b in boots is a smoother transition.

Question: Is this what you meant when you wrote that poetry is a journey across syllables?

Answer: Yes. I can see you’ve done your homework. That’s important for an interviewer. You wouldn’t want to embarrass yourself like the time Charlie Rose asked a guy who had stabbed his wife: “What’s the biggest mistake you ever made in your life?”

Question: You have referenced Robert Pinsky’s elegant little book called The Sounds of Poetry.

Answer: So you’ve read that book too. What’s your question?

Question: You need to stop being such a spazz and wait for the question. You’ve written that there’s always tension sound and meaning.

Answer: Yeah. It’s a constant tug-of-war between what you want to say and how you want to sound.

Question: Are you a rough and tumble cowboy in a civilized time?

Answer: Not really. I’m more of a “Can’t we all get along?” sort of a guy.

Question: Do you ever wish you were more of a rough and tumble cowboy?

Answer: Sure. And I’m very sympathetic to guys like that. And I probably wish I were less cautious and more mavericky.

Question:
So your writing is a variety of wish fulfillment?

Answer: Sometimes. But more often I write about the types of people and behaviors which annoy me. “Fastidious Fred”, for example. The genesis of that poem was a news feature I watched about an extremely uptight famous performer who was ironing his own shirt before going onstage.

Question: Who?

Answer: I’d rather not say.

Question:
Why not?

Answer: Because it wouldn’t be nice.

Question: But isn’t the pursuit of Truth and the creation of art more important than being nice to people?

Answer: No. It’s not even close.

Question: But there must be at least a little bit of Fred inside you.

Answer:
Not much. I hate ironing and I’m lousy at it. But like Fred I’ve certainly been guilty of idiotic stubbornness. In a more general sense, however, if you’ll pardon my circular reasoning, Fred comes out of me so he must be inside my. Adrienne Rich wonders about herself (and this applies to all writers): What kind of beast would turn its life into words? And writers turn their lives into words as spiders turn their lives into silk.

Question: You wrote “sometimes I think I have a long way to go when the poem suddenly informs me that I’m finished.” Can you give me an example of when that happened?

Answer:
Sure. It happened with the last thing I wrote, “Put the World in its Place” which I expected to be much longer. But after I inverted the order of the two stanzas I had written, the poem said, “You’ve made your point. There’s nothing to add. Now shut up and take a shower; it’s time to go to work.”

Question: You also wrote “Sometimes I begin writing a poem knowing exactly what I want to say and it turns out just like I planned. Sometimes. Other times I set out to write something, but I end up writing something else.” Can you give me an example of when that happened?

Answer: Sure. Originally “Unspeakable Things” was going to be an Emperor’s New Clothes narrative where someone, probably a kid or a newcomer to the town of Lidane, was going to ask why nobody ever talks about the giant box in the center of town or perhaps he was going to ask why they don’t just tear the stupid thing down. But after writing three descriptive stanzas, it was a little late to begin my narrative and the poem said, “Wrap it up, dude. You made your point.”

Question:
I notice Lidane is an anagram for denial.

Answer: You probably think you’re pretty clever for figuring that out.

Question: You write a lot about denial.

Answer: No I don’t.

Question: How do you decide if what you write is a song or a poem?

Answer: Usually I know from the beginning based on its structure. For example, if it’s iambic it’s probably a poem and if the stresses are more spaced out it’s a song. But sometimes I argue with myself right up until the moment I post it.

Question: Do you primarily consider yourself a songwriter or a poet?

Answer: Neither. I think it was Robert Frost who said you can’t declare yourself a poet; someone else has to do it for you. And no one that I know of has ever accused me of being a poet. And I can’t be a songwriter because I don’t know anything about music. Besides, I’ve only ever read one book about songwriting, and no one has ever set any of my words to music. So I’m just a frustrated would-be lyricist waiting for someone to email me saying, “I just have to make a song out of something you’ve written. Time to quit the day job.”

Question: I noticed that you write a lot about alcoholism and substance abuse.

Answer: I noticed that too.

by Richard W. Bray (and Richard W. Bray)

In Praise of Clever

April 7, 2012

Clever is underrated.

Clever describes one who possesses brilliance, mental sharpness, originality, or quick intelligence. But the word clever also implies shallowness and superficiality.

Fables teach our children that the clever fox is subordinate to the wise old owl. Cleverness is ephemeral but wisdom abides.

According to this distinction between cleverness and wisdom, cleverness is quick and slick whereas wisdom is an invaluable beverage which must ferment over time: wisdom enlightens; cleverness simply amuses. But without intelligence there is no wisdom; there is merely pablum which seeks to comfort.

And even the least refined cleverness has value. Every flash illuminates, if only for an instant.

I hope you enjoy these witty rhymes from Lyrics on Several Occasions. Ira Gershwin was very clever and that is good enough for me.*

Ira Gershwin rhymed embraceable you with irreplaceable you and silk and laceable you in Embraceable You (29-30)

Ira Gershwin rhymed divorcement with of course, meant and he rhymed painless with ball-and-chainless in Sweet Nevada (78)

Ira Gershwin rhymed enjoyment with for girl and boy meant in Nice Work if You can Get it (96)

Ira Gershwin rhymed caress men with yes men and chessmen in How Long has this Been Going On? (277)

Ira Gershwin rhymed four leaf clover time with (my heart) working overtime in ‘S Wonderful (251)

* I realize, of course, that the word clever has often been used to disparage the accomplishments of Jews, just as the word sinister has often been used to impugn their motives. This is not my intention.

Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on Lyrics on Several Occasions

December 30, 2010

VVVVIRA

Some Thoughts on Lyrics on Several Occasions

Ira Gershwin, a City College dropout, was a great lover of words.  The lyricist who is best-remembered for penning songs such as Embraceable You, I got Rhythm, and Someone to Watch Over Me with his prodigiously talented younger brother George displays much wit and erudition in Lyrics on Several Occasions (1959), which is part memoir, part songbook (minus the music), part dissertation on his craft, and part meditation on language.

Gershwin discusses various philological topics which range in complexity from the correct pronunciation of the word “Caribbean” and the use of “like” as a conjunction (77), to Sidney Lanier on the “laws governing music and verse” (301) and “erudite Isaac D’Isreali (father of brilliant ‘Dizzy’)” on the origins of rhyme (321-322).

Gershwin demonstrates his impressive breadth of knowledge in both poetry and linguistics describing how he makes what might seem to be a rather mundane word choice:

In “Crush on You” I used “sweetie pie,” which I felt wasn’t too diabetic a term. And I have gone for “sweet” as a noun of endearment several times. But the parent of the last two, “sweetheart” (which goes back about eight centuries to “swete heorte”), I have somehow always given a wide berth (95).

Other times Gershwin’s explanations for his word choices are more prosaic. Here is how he came up with a particular rhyme in the preamble for Looking for a Boy (‘Bout five foot six or seven):

…about the only rhymes I could use for “Heaven” were “seven” and “eleven”; hence her preoccupation with height. (“Devon” was geographically out-of-bounds; Laborite E. Bevins was probably already married; and what could one do with “replevin”?) (9).

Words enter a writer’s brain from various directions, and then via some mysterious alchemy, words come out. I will offer an example from my own writing simply because I’m the writer I know the best (and I’m not presuming in any way that anything I have written is on a par with Mr. Gershwin’s work.) When I read the complete works of Wilfred Owen a few years back I thought, “Wow, this slant rhyme is pretty cool!” I naturally assumed that after a brief interval my brain would begin to sprout forth slanty rhymes. Still waiting.

And when the words do come, sometimes a writer has to drop everything and tend to inspiration which might not return:

Working incommunicado, trying to solve the riddle of a lyric for a tune, I sometimes didn’t get to bed until after sunrise. Even then the tune could be so persistent that it could keep running on through sleep, and was still with me at breakfast. And later in the day when I was about to tackle some other problem, it was capable of capricious intrusion with the threat of “Write me up! Work on me now or you’ll never get through!” However, after some years of tussling with any number of tunes, I found that the newer ones gradually became less tenacious and more tractable (136).

Two Brief Funny Stories

When I was on jury service in New York many years ago there was a case found for the defendant. Afterwards, in the corridor, I saw the lawyer for the plaintiff approaching and thought I was going to be lectured. But no. Greetings over, all he wanted to know was whether the words or the music came first (41).

And on how Gershwin made use of the phrase Nice work if you can get it, which he came across in a book of cartoons rejected by British humor magazines:


One, submitted to Punch, I think, was–I’m pretty sure–by George Belcher, whose crayon specialized in delineating London’s lowly. In this one, two char-women are discussing the daughter of a third, and the first says she’s heard that the disscussee ‘as become a ‘ore. Whereat the second observes it’s nice work if you can get it
(97).

Morality and Popular Music

In comparison to today’s popular music, it’s hard to imagine people who would find Ira Gershwin’s lyrics offensive, although “Stairway to Paradise” pokes fun at people who are too pious for dancing and “Fascinating Rhythm” is obviously about a couple whose amorous activity is too loud for the neighbors. In Gershwin’s time, however, one musicologist referred to Gershwin Brothers hit Do, Do, Do as “smart smut,” (261) and in Philadelphia “one of the town’s top critics” objected to an “obscene phrase” in the song “‘Swonderful”:

I don’t know what he would think about these Freedom-of-Four-Letter-Speech days, but at the time he felt that “feeling amorous” was something better scrawled in chalk than sung from a stage (253).

In the Winter, 1955 edition of ETC., noted semanticist and future California United States Senator S.I. Hayakawa proffered the absurd notion that Ira Gershwin and his colleagues were causing an epidemic of helplessly lovelorn youth. He labeled the phenomenon it “IFD disease (Idealization; Frustration; Demoralization).” Mr. Gershwin’s hilarious response is on page 113.


The Most Interesting Thing I Learned from Reading Lyrics on Several Occasions

Ira Gershwin continued to work with several composers for decades after his brother’s unfortunate and untimely passing. He wrote The Man that Got Away with Harold Arlen, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1954. This portion of the haunting song contains two classic two-syllable Ira Gershwin rhymes.

The man that won you
Has gone off and undone you
That great beginning
Has seen the final inning.
Don’t know what happened. It’s all a crazy game!

by Richard W. Bray